You don't need to travel the world to find the best spices for cooking with. You also don't need to hunt down exotic food shops to find flavor that will ignite your taste buds and bring more life to your meals.
We've included 18 common cooking spices that are inherently exotic in their flavor profile, and you can usually find them right in your neighbourhood supermarket or organic grocer. Cooking spices for curry. Cooking spices for chicken. Even cooking spices for hot chocolate abound. But how do you know which ones you should use, the best way to store cooking spices, and whether organic spices are better than non-organic commercial varieties?
We've got the full n' spicy scoop on everything to do with cooking spices right here in this guide. Use the following table of contents to grab a sneak peak of what's in store, and jump to relevant sections if you desire.
Adventures in the kitchen.
When you have access to good-quality ground spices, you can take any bland dish and transform it into a masterpiece. Much like an artist with a painter's palette of various shades lashed upon a blank canvas, or various textiles to weave together something more extraordinary than a single bolt of cotton. Add fragrant cinnamon and nutmeg to boring breakfast oatmeal, or dill weed to a fresh-squeezed lemon and olive oil dressing.
The best part about spices is that they give themselves to experimentation. It's not necessary to understand the properties of each individual spice (though it's entirely possible!) to know how to combine them. A sniff test usually sets you off on the right foot. But for a basic start, we've included a flavor profile of each spice, which will help you determine the most complementary blends.
Add flavor and aroma.
Transform a meal with a range of flavors, from sweet to earthy to a good kick of spice. Spices have a range of grounding, cooling, and heating properties that add textured taste to meals and help balance the flavor palette.
Enhance the taste of food.
Spices aren't just about flavor and aroma. They also lend a more attractive aesthetic quality to meals, appealing to desire for vivid color. Ever notice how Indian curries are served up in shades of rich mahogany, orange, or tawny brown? That has everything to do with the spices chefs load into them, from turmeric to paprika to mustard powder and saffron.
Various cuisines the world over have used cooking spices for hundreds of years to bring flavor, texture, aroma, and therapeutic benefits to meals. Kitchari, for example, is an Ayurvedic recipe originating in India for treating digestive discomfort with spices that ease stomach upset, promote cleansing, and support a healthy digestive fire (get an excellent kitchari recipe here).
Diane Vizthum, research nutritionist for the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore explains: "There are more than 100 common spices used in cooking around the world. Spices are concentrated sources of antioxidants… but some have been more studied for their therapeutic properties than others."
Cinnamon helps lower blood pressure and boost metabolism. Turmeric fights inflammation when combined with black pepper. Ginger relieves nausea and aids digestion. Garlic supports heart health (and keeps certain folks at a distance). It's a nearly inexhaustible list! While we don't get as much of the active compound consuming culinary spices over supplements, we certainly reap far more enjoyment and creative cooking bursts than any capsule can give us. Our thought is, why not opt for a little bit of everything?
Does the Dirty Dozen exist in the spice aisle too? Not quite, but organic spices are revered for boasting better, sharper flavor. Since most spices are either from a dried and desiccated plant or ground from a root, one of the most compelling reasons for choosing organic spices has to do with how they're processed.
Because many spices grow in tropical regions only, they must be imported and sterilized to eradicate any microbes, according to government regulations. If not carefully managed, this process may interfere with flavor and quality. Spices are sterilized in three ways: fumigation, irradiation, and steam. Let's take a look at each one.
This method uses multiple chemicals, none of which appear on the label. Examples are ethylene oxide or propylene oxide. After fumigation, spices are aerated to dispel residual chemicals.
Radiation penetrates spices to eradicate bacteria and prolong shelf life, a process that is also used for other foods, such as meat, in various countries. It also prevents germination in some foods like onions and garlic. If a spice has been irradiated, it loses its organic certification, even though it doesn't typically contain residue like fumigation does. This process may degrade flavor and quality.
Sterilization through steaming is the only method permitted for organic certification. Spices are steamed under pressure at a specific temperature and duration. This method helps retain the flavor and quality of spices better than the other two methods because it prevents damage to plant enzymes. As you can guess, steam is the most expensive and therefore infrequently used method for sterilizing spices.
The shelf life of cooking spices varies from one spice to another, but the biggest threats to all spices are light, oxygen, and humidity. All spices contain essential oils, which diminish as spices age leading to loss of flavor and potency. Herbs and spices are photosensitive, and light causes them to oxidize. When exposed to oxygen, the essential oils oxidize. These natural processes may affect ground spices more than whole ones because they have a greater surface area.
Humidity is another culprit that causes spices to go off because they naturally absorb moisture in the air, changing their weight and flavor. If you've noticed lumps in your ground spices or a diminished flavor, humidity is likely the cause. But more troubling is that humidity can cause mold to grow, which produces mycotoxins that are harmful to health. Be sure to read the following section on how to store spices to maintain their freshness, flavor, and quality.
Different spices contain different levels of moisture, and some, like black pepper, naturally release water vapor and should be stored separately from those that are sensitive to moisture.
Store all your spices separately in a cool, dark, and dry environment, such as in a kitchen cupboard or drawer to preserve freshness. Dark-colored glass helps prevent oxidation and degradation, and a tightly fitting lid prevents overexposure to oxygen.
You may wish to display a polychromatic spice rack on your countertop, the side of your fridge, or in some other visible space in your kitchen (get more ideas here). But you run the risk of prematurely degrading the potency of your spices in favor of aesthetics. If you do choose a more stylish storage, keep only small amounts at a time.
18 Common Cooking Spices
Sweet and pungent with notes of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, this small dried green berry is a must-have in any kitchen pantry. It loses fragrance and flavor quickly, so it's better to buy it whole and grind it when you need it. Six whole allspice berries is equivalent to about ½ teaspoon of ground allspice.
Health Benefits: Relieves gas, bloating, and stomach upset, and may help lower inflammation
Flavor Profile: Earthy and sweet
Pair With These Foods: Apples, carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, beets, cabbage, beef, and lamb
Pair With These Spices: Cardamom, nutmeg, ginger, mace, cloves, and cinnamon
For Use In: Breads, soups, and desserts
Cayenne pepper is a type of capsicum. The powder is a pungent, spicy preparation made from ground dried chili peppers. When it's very fresh, you don't need a lot to heat things up. Store freshly-ground cayenne pepper in an airtight container at room temperature and use within six months.
Health Benefits: Boosts metabolism, reduces hunger, may improve psoriasis, lowers blood pressure
Flavor Profile: Spicy
Pair With These Foods: Zucchini, corn, tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant, potatoes, fish, chicken, and beef
Pair With These Spices: Cinnamon, cumin, and paprika
For Use In: Salad dressings, soups, marinades, and sauces
Cinnamon is a popular spice, welcome in a variety of dishes. It has a sweet, woody flavor with a slight note of citrus. Store it in a dark and cool place for up to a year. The sticks, if also kept in a dry, dark, and coolish space will keep for up to four years.
Health Benefits: Anti-inflammatory properties, lowers blood sugar, reduces risk of heart disease
Flavor Profile: Earthy, sweet, and warming
Pair With These Foods: Squash, apples, pears, sweet potatoes, and carrots
Pair With These Spices: Nutmeg, cloves, and allspice
For Use In: Breads, desserts, fruit sauces, and oatmeal
Coriander comes from the same plant as love-it-or-hate-it cilantro but boasts a very different flavor. Coriander is earthy, slightly sweet, and aromatic, and has a gentle citrus note. Store it like other spices, in an opaque, air-tight jar in a dark, dry, cool place. Put a small chunk of asafoetida in the container to prolong its life.
Health Benefits: Gut health, immune health, and lowering blood sugar
Flavor Profile: Earthy, peppery, and woody
Pair With These Foods: Tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, potatoes, chicken, beef, pork, fish, and tofu
Pair With These Spices: Cinnamon, cumin, and chili powder
For Use In: Dry rubs, stuffing, sauces, soups, curries, and marinades
Warm, smokey, and earthy-tasting cumin has a slight sweetness and bitterness to it. It comes from the dried seed of a plant called Cuminum cyminum, from the parsley family. When stored in an airtight container in a dark, dry, and cool environment, whole cumin seeds will maintain freshness for up to a year. Ground cumin keeps about 6 months in equal conditions.
Health Benefits: Helps control blood sugar, aids weight loss, fights bacteria and parasites
Flavor Profile: Smokey and earthy
Pair With These Foods: Green beans, zucchini, carrots, tomatoes, and eggplant
Pair With These Spices: Turmeric, cinnamon, oregano, ginger, and garlic powder
For Use In: Dry rubs, rice, sauces, soups, curries, and marinades
Dill weed is a gift from the Gods. Its fragrance alone is reason enough to add it to salads and marinades. To increase the flavor of fresh dill weed, spritz the stems with a fine water mist, wrap loosely in paper towels, and put in a sealed bag in the fridge. Store dry dill weed like other spices in a cool, dry, dark place.
Health Benefits: Alleviates digestive issues, colic in infants, and bad breath, and supports immune system and healthy vision
Flavor Profile: Warm, earthy/grassy, citrus, and aromatic
Pair With These Foods: Salmon, potatoes, salads, and yogurt-based sauces
Pair With These Spices: Garlic, basil, parsley, paprika, and mustard
For Use In: Grilled fish and seafood, salad dressings, marinandes, and sauces
If you love anise or licorice root, you'll love fennel. Available as a whole, fresh plant, seeds, and ground powder. Combine fennel with cumin and coriander (1 part each) and stir into freshly boiled water to make a quick CCF tea (cumin-coriander-fennel), used in Ayurvedic medicine to restore balance and alleviate stomach upset. Store ground fennel and fennel seeds in a cool, dark, dry place.
Health Benefits: Helps treat digestive issues such as heartburn, gas, bloating, and loss of appetite, as well as colic in infants.
Flavor Profile: Light, sweet, anise-like, similar to licorice, and warming
Pair With These Foods: Vegetables, radishes, beans, olives, spinach, onions, chicken, pork, and parmesan cheese
Pair With These Spices: Basil, thyme, parsey, and lemon zest
For Use In: Soups, salads, stews, and grilled poultry
The rule with garlic is if you're eating in with company, make sure everyone's eating it. Indeed it smells delicious when it's being cooked but not so nice when it's leaching out your pores or stuck on your breath! The flavor of ground garlic isn't as strong as the fresh stuff, but it also doesn't have those lovely carmel-like notes that you get from sauteed fresh garlic. Store garlic powder in a dark jar with a tight-fitting lid, and keep away from heat, light, and humidity to prevent caking.
Health Benefits: Combats the common cold, can reduce blood pressure, improve cholesterol levels, and lowers the risk of heart disease
Flavor Profile: Savory and sweet
Pair With These Foods: Mushrooms, zucchini, carrots, tomatoes, cabbage, tofu, fish, beef, beans, and chicken
Pair With These Spices: Coriander, turmeric, cumin, and oregano
For Use In: Dry rubs, marinades, stir-fries, dressings, sauces, curries, and soups
Love it or hate it, ginger packs a strong, hot punch. It's used frequently in Indian dishes, and therapeutically as a way to reduce stomach upset. Believe it or not, fresh grated ginger pairs well with fruit salad and yogurt too so you can make it part of your breakfast. Roll it into Japanese maki rolls for an added kick. Store ground ginger in a dark, dry, cool place.
Health Benefits: Alleviates nausea and menstrual cramps, relieves indigestion, and regulates blood sugar.
Flavor Profile: Sweet and warm
Pair With These Foods: Sweet potatoes, beets, squash, citrus, carrots, tofu, pork, fish, chicken, and beef
Pair With These Spices: Turmeric and garlic powder
For Use In: Stir-fries, marinades, rice, and curries
Mustard powder is an antioxidant-rich source of trace minerals such as selenium and magnesium. It has a pungent kick that livens up hamburgers, hot dogs, roasts, and salad dressings. As a powder, it complements many recipes. Just ½ teaspoon is enough to lend its warmth. Store the powder in a dark, dry, cool place.
Health Benefits: May help reduce blood pressure and protect from infections and disease
Flavor Profile: Tangy, warm, sweet, and spicy
Pair With These Foods: Meats, cheeses, fish, eggs, and pasta
Pair With These Spices: Cumin, dill weed, fennel, parsely, and pepper
For Use In: Cheese and cheese sauce, marinades, sauces, salad dressings, sandwiches, and soups
Nutmeg is an intense spice that has a sweet nutty flavor and distinct aroma. It pairs well with other warm but less-intense spices like cinnamon. There is some belief that nutmeg enhances the female libido (but only the female one) because it stimulates the nervous system. Store ground nutmeg in a cool, dry, dark place.
Health Benefits: Relieves pain, soothes indigestion, supports cognitive function, detoxifies the body, improves blood circulation, and improves skin health.
Flavor Profile: Sweet and nutty
Pair With These Foods: Sweet potatoes, squash, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage
Pair With These Spices: Cloves, allspice, cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, ginger, and coriander
For Use In: Sauces, stuffings, rice, and breads
This well-known herb is a fine pizza and pasta duster in small quantities as its robust flavor imparts a slightly astringent feel in the mouth and easily overpowers other herbs and spices. Loaded with cell-saving antioxidants, it's an excellent source of fiber, vitamin K and E, and calcium.
Health Benefits: Fights staph and viral infections and may decrease inflammation
Flavor Profile: Earthy and slightly minty
Pair With These Foods: Mushrooms, zucchini, potatoes, tomatoes, bell peppers, artichokes, beans, chicken, lamb, fish, and pork
Pair With These Spices: Bay leaves, thyme, and chili powder
For Use In: Tomato sauces, dry rubs, marinades, soups, and salad dressings
This lemony-pine flavored herb has a woodsy, peppery taste. It's a rich source of antioxidants and has anti-inflammatory properties, so it helps prevent cell-damage and reduces the risk of chronic illness. Rub a bit of fresh rosemary in your palms and take a deep inhale. Its aroma increases alertness and imparts a general feeling of wellness and pleasure. Store dried rosemary in a dark, cool, dry place.
Health Benefits: Boosts the immune system, improves circulation, boosts alertness, focus, and memory.
Flavor Profile: Earthy
Pair With These Foods: Onions, peas, mushrooms, potatoes, fish, pork, lamb, chicken, and beans
Pair With These Spices: Basil, thyme, garlic powder, and oregano
For Use In: Marinades
Saffron is an autumn-flowering crocus with reddish-purple flowers. It has sweet floral notes that pair well with several dishes. If ever saffron tastes bitter or metallic, it's likely a low-quality version or an imitation. You can usually tell from the price. It takes 75K saffron flowers to make just one pound of the spice, and harvesting is done manually. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dark place for up to 6 months. While it won't spoil, it loses its flavor with age.
Health Benefits: May help treat depression and mood disorders, reduce PMS symptoms, aid weight loss, and has some aphrodisiac properties.
Flavor Profile: Earthy, grassy, sweet, and floral
Pair With These Foods: Apples, almonds, honey, poultry, milk, lamb, seafood, garlic, white wine, and citrus fruits.
Pair With These Spices: Cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, rosemary, thyme, paprika, and turmeric
For Use In: Roast chicken, rice, paella, and risotto
This herb has a variety of uses, from an aromatic essential oil to an herb for smudging to an ornamental household plant. It's used in savory recipes such as roasted meats and stuffing. It also has several health benefits. Dried sage has a long shelf life, up to 4 years when stored in a cool, dark, dry place.
Health Benefits: Supports oral health, eases menopause symptoms, reduces blood sugar levels, supports memory, and lowers bad cholesterol
Flavor Profile: Earthy, slightly peppery, hints of mint and lemon
Pair With These Foods: Pork, beef, duck, chicken, and other fatty meats
Pair With These Spices: Thyme, marjoram rosemary, oregano, parsley, garlic, and bay leaf
For Use In: Melted butter, pasta, gnocchi, roasted meats, and stuffing
This spice is made from peppers that are smoked and dried over oak fires, and you can find it in varying levels of heat: mild, medium-hot, and hot. It's perfect for hearty meals, especially those prepared on the barbeque. Smoked paprika can be stored for up to 6 months in a cool, dry, dark place.
Health Benefits: May reduce inflammation, improve cholesterol levels and blood sugar, and promote healthy vision.
Flavor Profile: Sweet, warm, and smokey
Pair With These Foods: Cauliflower, squash, potatoes, broccoli, bell peppers, chicken, tofu, lamb, and shellfish
Pair With These Spices: Chili Powder, cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, and garlic powder
For Use In: Salad dressing, marinades, rice, soups, and deviled eggs
Thyme is an aromatic plant of the mint family. Packed with vitamin C, it supports a healthy body and is also a good source of minerals such as copper, iron, and manganese. It has a concentrated herbal flavor with floral notes like lavender and rosemary. Dry a bunch of fresh thyme by hanging it in a warm, dark place with low humidity. The leaves should dry within two weeks and can be removed by running your fingers down the stem. Store in an airtight container.
Health Benefits: May help fight fungal and bacterial infections, relieve muscle spasms, and help reduce inflammation.
Flavor Profile: Earthy
Pair With These Foods: Peas, green beans, carrots, tomatoes, cauliflower, zucchini, lentils, chicken, fish, beef, pork, and lamb
Pair With These Spices: Rosemary, oregano, and sage
For Use In: Marinandes, dry rubs, salad dressings, and soups
Turmeric is an aromatic, bitter-tasting powder made from the rhizome of a plant of the ginger family. It's used extensively in Indian cooking and its characteristic orange color tints many dishes. If you're cooking with fresh turmeric root, know that it stains hands and cutting boards so handle with care. Ground turmeric lasts about six months when stored in a cool, dry, dark place.
Health Benefits: Fights inflammation, may prevent heart disease, may improve symptoms of depression and arthritis
Flavor Profile: Peppery and bitter
Pair With These Foods: Potato, cabbage, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, beans, lentils, chicken, fish, and tofu
Pair With These Spices: Garlic powder, ginger, cardamom, and black pepper
For Use In: Rice and curries
Variety Is The Spice Of Life
We hope this resource has provided some key and clear information to guide your efforts in the kitchen. There's no wrong way to use spices. Experimentation is the best teacher, so don't be afraid to try a variety of spices in different recipes.
We'd like to leave you with a recipe for our unique and homemade dressing with a spice blend derived from our own experiential efforts in the kitchen. Drizzle it on salads and over top steamed veggies.
Spiced Lemon Dressing
3 tbsp olive oil
Juice of ½ lemon
1 tbsp tahini
1 teaspoon of the following spice blend:
Cayenne Pepper (½ part)
Use 1:1 ratio of freshly ground spices
We hope you enjoyed this free spice guide from Priority Chef. If you have questions, comments, or other feedback, please feel free to contact us, or sign up for our monthly newsletter.
Are you on Facebook? We are too! Follow us here. And if you know someone who would also find this guide useful, feel free to pass it on.
Priority Chef: Quality You Can Trust
At Priority Chef, we think that food prep and cooking should be a fun and rewarding endeavor, but that's only possible with the right tools. That's why we're focused on creating functional, high-quality kitchenware that you and your family will rely on for years.
We design, source, craft, and rigorously test each of our products to ensure the highest quality and convenience. From our family to yours, enjoy a spicy holiday season filled with delicious, heart-warming meals!